May 15, 2023

IntelBrief: Elections Might Refocus Türkiye’s Policies

Umit Bektas/Pool Photo via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • Neither President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, appear to have received enough votes (50%+) to avoid a runoff election on May 28.
  • Even if he prevails, the close contest might prompt Erdogan to alter at least some of his domestic policies in order to rebuild his support to earlier levels.
  • It remains unclear whether there will be enough support in the Turkish parliament – a 60% supermajority – to end Erdogan’s “executive presidency” and return to a parliamentary-based system of governance.
  • The United States and its European allies perceive that a defeat for Erdogan would lead to Turkish domestic and regional policies more aligned with those of the West, particularly regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine.

On May 14, Türkiye conducted a relatively peaceful and orderly election for president and the 600 members of the Grand National Assembly (parliament). Nearly 61 million Turkish citizens, including more than 3.4 million expatriates, were eligible to vote in the elections, and the turnout in Türkiye on election day reportedly exceeded the 88% in the previous general elections in 2018. Even voters in the country’s southeast, which was ravaged by a February 6 earthquake, were able to turn out in large numbers. Out-of-country voting, which began in late April, scored records with a turnout of 51% in 73 countries. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of election monitors deployed collectively by all the Turkish political parties, international observers were deployed across Türkiye. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deployed a full monitoring mission of 350 members. Although the voting on election day was orderly, the May 12 announcement by the U.S.-based social media platform Twitter that it had blocked some content ahead of the election raised fears that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to shape the voting in his favor. Twitter justified the move as an effort to prevent the whole platform from being blocked by officials; the Erdogan government has previously blocked Twitter. The relatively smooth election - coupled with pledges by Erdogan to abide by the results – appears to have calmed global fears of post-election violence or instability or attempts by Erdogan to overturn adverse election results. However, Erdogan’s allies reportedly are questioning the results from some locations where he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are reported to have performed below expectations.

With the election completed without violence or major incident, the focus of Türkiye’s voters and politicians focuses on the races for president and for parliament. The main contest has been between Erdogan, who heads the AKP, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the Republican People’s Party (CHP).  A third candidate, Sinan Ogun, finished far behind the other two, and a fourth candidate, Muharrem Ince, dropped out of the race on May 12 – a development that was expected to help Kilicdaroglu. As of late on May 14, with more than 90% of ballots counted, the contest appears to be close, with neither candidate apparently achieving the 50%+ majority to avoid a runoff. However, most sources placed Erdogan at about 49% of the vote, ahead of Kilicdaroglu by about 5%, but apparently still short of the total needed for a first-round victory. The election for Turkey’s 600-seat parliament was held concurrently, and the outcome of that vote could be crucial for Türkiye’s system of governance. If Kilicdaroglu becomes president, the six-party alliance that supports him would need a vote of 360 members (60% supermajority) to trigger an end to the executive presidency that Erdogan has established. Opponents have viewed his executive presidency as a cornerstone of Erdogan’s backsliding toward authoritarianism and away from democracy and freedom of expression. Returning to a parliamentary system has been a key plank of the CHP and Kilicdaroglu. The country’s pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, which is running in a leftist alliance, also supports such a transition.

At the same time, even if Erdogan is re-elected, it can be argued that he might shift course, to some extent, on his domestic policies. During the campaign, he sought strenuously to rebut allegations by the opposition that he had undermined the independence of Türkiye’s judiciary. He refuted criticism that he had undermined democracy by repressing opposition-controlled and independent media and enacting laws to prosecute his political critics. The fact that the will of the voters threaten Erdogan’s grip on power could lead him to temper some of the authoritarian bent he has placed on domestic policy. He might also revise some aspects of the economic policies that the opposition cited as the cause of rampant inflation – nearly 50% according to official figures – and the sharp drop in the value of Türkiye’s currency, the lira. For example, in order to financially benefit his middle-class, conservative base, Erdogan has insisted on low interest rates – the opposite strategy advocated by professional economists who maintain that interest rates need to rise to reduce runaway inflation. Erdogan’s interest rate policy has demonstrated that the Central Bank and other economic institutions are not independent but instead are controlled by Erdogan’s presidential office.

A victory by Kilicdaroglu in a runoff would likely be welcomed in Washington and European capitals, particularly insofar as Kilicdaroglu advocates enacting new human rights and other laws that would further Türkiye’s attempts to obtain membership in the European Union. He also advocates a closer relationship with Türkiye’s other NATO partners, and he would likely drop the conditions Erdogan has placed on Sweden’s membership in the alliance. U.S. and European leaders had been hoping that an opposition victory in Türkiye would lead Ankara to shift decisively away from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although any Turkish leader would need to engage with Russia as a Black Sea power and potential adversary, Washington and European capitals have criticized Erdogan for refusing to enforce Western sanctions against Russia imposed to try to cripple Moscow’s capacity to fund its war effort against Ukraine. A loss by Erdogan’s AKP would also presumably produce a reorientation in Turkish domestic and foreign policy back toward the secularism that underpinned the founding of the Turkish state. Erdogan and the AKP, which have governed for nearly two decades, have supported greater emphasis on Islam and Islamic tradition in Türkiye’s institutions and social life. Erdogan’s government has supported regional Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and a Brotherhood affiliate, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas – the latter of which is named a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the United States. Erdogan’s support for Islamist movements has hindered his efforts to improve relations with Israel over the past year, although Israel has been receptive to his overtures in the interest of reducing regional tensions.